Sunday, 28 December 2008

Sun, moon, stars and sand

So about those wooden pipes I bought in the prison. Not having any use for them I meant to ditch them, but amid the excitement of the salt flats tour I forgot. I only remembered them when the driver of the bus from the Chile/Bolivia border to San Pedro de Atacama announced that Chilean customs search everything. Countries don't like you importing anything wooden, so wooden drugs paraphernalia is a definite no no. So said pipes are in my rucksack at the bottom of a big pile of rucksacks on the bus so I wasn´t gonna be able to get to them until we got to customs. We had a customs declaration form to fill in and it asks if you have any wooden items. I clearly wasn´t the only one with something slightly iffy because I´ve never seen so many people sitting there reading the small print of these declarations!

I would have declared them if I had to but with my limited Spanish, bringing in wooden objects for the purpose of smoking drugs would be quite difficult to explain without a pair of rubber gloves getting involved, so I decided that I´d leave the box on the form blank for the time being and ditch them if I got the chance when I got my bag from the bus. And under the guise of retrieving my Chile guidebook from my bag and binning a half eaten tube of Pringles I managed to get rid of them. My bag was fully searched too. Disaster averted, and lesson learnt!

San Pedro was a tiny little town and very nice. Although I´d seen some geysers on the salt flats tour, the El Tatio geysers were supposed to be really spectacular, so signed myself up for the tour starting at 4am - you can only see the steam first thing in the morning. And they were pretty impressive, a massive field of them steaming away in the desert. Its cold in the desert at that time of the morning though. Took a dip in some (not particularly) hot springs which did little to warm me up. On the way back we stopped off at a small village so at 10.30am I had a llama kebab!

The rest of the day was a disappointment as the other two activities I had signed up for - sand boarding, and a trip into the desert to an observatory to look at the stars - were both cancelled. The disadvantage of travelling alone is sometimes there are minimum numbers to do stuff - sandboarding needed two people and I was the only one. Doh! It was too cloudy for the skywatching. Bumped into Charlie and Elizabeth who I'd met in Potosi so had a few drinks with them. Then had a few drinks with Fiona from Scotland (from my hostel), and met some American astronomers over you do.

Brief aside on the hostel, I don't think boiler health and safety standards are quite up to those in the UK as the one in the hostel looked like it had a carbon monoxide issue. Good job it was outside!

Next day hired a mountain bike to go into the desert to see La Valle de la Luna, a landscape that looks like the moon. Anyone with any brains starts between 8 and 9am to avoid the heat of the desert in the middle of the day, so off I set at 10.30. I really hadn´t given it any thought, although the penny should have dropped when I saw loads of people getting bikes while I was tracking down some breakfast to cure my hangover!

The scenery was impressive and was well worth going to see. Cycling in the heat was pretty hard work though, especially when you're knackered and all you can see is a long straight road ahead and it is uphill slightly.

It was also hard work on the bike I had been given. I was genuinely worried that I was gonna get stuck in the desert as if I got a puncture I had nothing to repair it with (not that I´d be capable anyway) and no way of contacting anyone. The bike was a piece of junk - the gears were stuck on the second cog which made going up hills too much hard work, the seat was barely attached to the bike when I´d finished, and when the chain came off it took forever to get back on. I think the bloke I´d hired the bike from was genuinely surprised to see me get back!

Managed to do the sandboarding later that day as Matt and Bryony from Beeston - which is five minutes down the road from where I grew up - had also signed up. Great fun. Had done it in Peru where we went down on our fronts but this time we strapped our feet in like a snowboard. Our "guide" helpfully told us to put our feet in the straps and point the board down the sand dune. Its a good job he mentioned this too as we may not have managed to work this out for ourselves! Subsequently the guide and his mate sat in the jeep with the seats fully reclined and doors wide open playing power ballads and bad pop music at full blast.

The first few goes at boarding I just fell over after a few yards and for the whole two hours I had minimal control and couldn't turn, but after a bit I managed to stay upright which meant I just hurtled down the dune getting faster and faster until I crashed! There was also a bit of a jump which was fun and the main cause of crashes. In one crash I landed so hard on my bum that I thought I'd torn myself a get the picture! When the guide started hammering the horn to say time to go, I knew I had to make the last run a good one, and it was as I cleared the jump then had a massive stack at the end. Brilliant!

I found out afterwards though the Bryony is a Derby fan. Outrageous. Had I known I may have made more of an effort to crash into her!

After this we headed into the Valle de la Luna to watch the sunset, which was also pretty spectacular.

Although it was a cloudy night, Monsieur French Astronomer deemed it clear enough to run the tour, so at half past midnight we went into the desert to look at the stars. Apparently the Atacama desert is one of the best astronomy sites in the world. We were expecting some "big ass telescopes" and while they weren't small they weren't huge either, just really powerful. Saw the moon in amazing detail, clouds of gas that will form planets, and the rings of Saturn amongst other things. Very impressive. Quite a random tourist attraction but very interesting.

Next day got a 10 hour bus into Argentina, to Salta. Not a massive amount to do in Salta but its a good base for exploring the surrounding countryside, although did go up a cable car where you get good views over the city.

Over the next two days I did day tours to Cachi via Parque nacional los Cordones, and Cafayate. En route there was some pretty spectacular scenery, including mountains, rivers, the Escoipe gorge, deserts full of cactuses, and natural rock hollows where people were playing music to use the acoustics. Cafayate is a wine region so tasted some wine there too. Two good days.

In Salta had my first Asado which is an Argentinian barbeque. It was four courses. The first course was red meat, followed by red meat for second course - you can see where this is going. Likely to be in Argentina for six weeks and it is supposed to have some of the best steak in the world, so definitely need to pace myself on the red meat front, otherwise I'll have constant meat sweats, maybe even meat hallucinations.

After three days in Salta I jumped on a 21 hour bus to Buenos Aires as it was the last weekend of the football season so it was my only chance to get to a game.

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